Hamlet Knows Exactly Where He is Going
Madness fascinated William Shakespeare’s contemporaries, perhaps in part because it was still not entirely clear how or when madness as a disease was to be distinguished from demonic possession or spiritual ecstasy. Mad characters were a staple of William Shakespeare’s stage and such figures were particularly associated with revenge plays. Hamlet’s distraction, then, is notable in part because it is feigned. In Hamlet is the exploration and implicit criticism of a particular state of mind or consciousness. Shakespeare uses a series of encounters to reveal the complex state of the human mind. Critics who find the cause of Hamlet’s delay in his internal meditations typically view the prince as a man of great moral integrity who is forced to commit an act which goes against his deepest principles. On numerous occasions, the prince tries to make sense of his moral dilemma through personal meditations.
Seems, madam! nay, is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected behaviour of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief,
That can denote me truly: these, indeed, seem,
For they are actions that a man might play: (I ii 130-38)
How is an audience to believe a character who immediately says what he is to be truly mad? Insanity in present-day terms is often noted by denying one’s state of mind and self. Yet, Hamlet acknowledges himself constantly and recognizes who and what he is and is doing. Hamlet reveals himself in the most unaffected sense, as an actor upon the stage, and as an actor within the play. The prince speaks in terms of playing, pretending. He even accuses others of not playing their roles well enough, therefore not playing whatever character each character has assumed well enough, “…there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour…” (II ii 282-285). If Hamlet considers his life as a play (as he well might) then there is nothing to say that he is continuously acting a part, even the part of the madman. He is essentially costumed in grief. His actions cannot represent the workings of his mind nor demonstrate what he feels. Later, Hamlet reminds the audience that he is an actor in both senses, and a poor one at that. If Hamlet the pretender were really talented, would there be any question as to his sanity? His “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!?” (II ii) soliloquy finds the tragic prince suffering for a character who hasn’t been well played, and he compares himself to the impassioned Player of the visiting troupe. If this were not sufficient and immediate evidence of sanity, Hamlet informs Horatio and the others that ” I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on.” (I v 171-72) The Prince of Denmark is revealing his plan, one of pretentious madness, suggested by Horatio himself;
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreaded summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason,
And draw you into madness? (I iv 68-72)
Horatio could well be the spark of Hamlet’s scheme for artificial madness. Seeing the ghost privately against Horatio’s advisement gives him a greater argument for insanity. Even though he has told Horatio and the guards that he will play the madman, Hamlet’s first manipulation begins here, with those who know the design for deception. Therefore, both the audience and his fellow actors have been produced to the character as just that- a character, an actor, a deceiver.
Hamlet….my uncle-father and aunt-mother
Guildenstern.In what, my dear lord?
Hamlet.I am but mad north-noth-west: when the
wind is southerly I know a hawk from a hand-
The Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity
A procrastinator? “Who does me this, ha?” (II ii 585) Hamlet is the farthest thing from a procrastinator. Waiting is not procrastinating. Hamlet is by contrast a worthy schemer, one who is circumspect and prudent. Hamlet does not want to rush into something whose consequences for being wrong and rash could be more than he could abide. His contemplation of the immortal soul and Hell are evidence enough that the Prince of Denmark does not wish to abide in eternal hell for answering his father’s call for retribution. This becomes evident when he chooses not to kill Claudius when he is at prayer, when he speaks of God’s aversion to suicide, or when he considers his mother’s feelings for Claudius. His conscience is of great importance to him, though he does accuse his conscience of making him a coward. Hamlet is not afraid of exacting revenge, just of the consequences of being personally responsible for their deaths. His regard for collected, rational revenge is important to him. Claudius himself summarizes Hamlet’s attitude;
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go. (III iii 96-7)
Hamlet is a man of observation. He studies people, “tents them to the quick” (II ii 608), and bases his decisions and his actions on the things he learns. Concern for conscience and a taste for precaution suggests clarity and utmost rationality, not a mind consumed with disease.
Critics have argued that Hamlet is a man of inaction, which is not entirely the case. How better to ruin your enemies than to devise schemes of self-destruction? Revenge would taste sweeter if Hamlet didn’t have to lay a single finger against those whom he is to dispatch. His conscience then would ultimately be clean in a religious sense- his soul would be free to go to Heaven. Hamlet knows all too well that the supposd ghost of his murdered father could only be a devil tempting him as he notes in Act II Scene ii. Inaction, then, is Hamlet’s method of acting. By observing, he allows a natural flow of events to occur. Ingenuously, Hamlet’s timely remarks often influence the course of events in his favour, yet he cannot be considered a guilty party of the events that occur: responsible, but not guilty. Hamlet’s ‘wait and see’ attitude allows his peers to realize his madness (however false), considered traitors like Ophelia, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to be unmasked, and Gertrude’s realization of her own guilty part of the rotten game in Denmark.
Is Hamlet intelligent? Beyond the shadow of a doubt, bordering on the lines of absolute brilliance. Who else could manipulate the closest people in his life as if they were chess pieces on a board? It is not a dull person who could recognize his friends and family as the greatest betrayers of his life and to recognize carefully hidden lies. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, long time friends of Hamlet, are almost instantly pegged as Claudius’ spies. The Prince of Denmark feels them out, talking of Denmark and waits for their response, which is too innocent for Hamlet’s liking. Hamlet’s shrewdness allows him to see his friends (and his enemies) for what they are, and to catch them in their lies;
sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your queen have
looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour: I know the good king andsent for you. (II ii 282-286)
Hamlet has the mental capacity and the acting capability to set his enemies on completely the wrong trail, to divert them from the real truth. Hamlet comments that he is “too much in the sun” (I ii 67), is being observed in the wrong fashion. If he knows that he is being watched, then he must make his observers believe the wrong thing about them. Doing thus, he draws out his enemies and the truth. His mind has the capacity to think quickly, to mince words, exchange cutting wits with his enemies, fool them, lead them, and ultimately destroy them. When Hamlet discovers Ophelia’s infidelity (or rather, loyalty to her father and brother as opposed to him), he uses her as an ultimate means to convincing the others of his madness. If she, the woman he loves (and for the sake of this argument, he does love her), is to be used and abused so poorly, then Hamlet must truly be mad. Ophelia is the first step to convincing Polonius Hamlet is mad;
I will be brief:– your noble son is mad: (II ii 91)
Ophelia, additionally, is a threat to Hamlet. She, if anyone, must be convinced of his madness to convince others of it. Prince Hamlet can then be accused of cruelty and cold calculation/manipulation, but not of madness. Ultimately, Hamlet’s brilliant manipulation of people (to be discussed further) destroys them without laying complete guilt upon himself. How are we to believe that Shakespeare intended the audience to feel pity for a mind to which we were meant to bow?
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words… (II ii 593-596)
Of any Shakespearean character, Hamlet speaks the most. What he says versus what he does are two entirely different actions. Critics have often believed Hamlet’s tendancy to verbosity to be a sign of his procrastination, of his constant deliberation and inordinate thinking. As discussed, Hamlet does not procrastinate. His wordiness is a method of tantalizing those who listen, even when he seemingly speaks alone. It cannot be assumed that Hamlet is ever alone (there is always an audience). His soliloquies are moments to remind himself of the plan, to rework the plan, or to evaluate his performance. Or, they are to plant information and accentuate or affirm his mania. Hamlet is aware that he is constantly being watched, or he would not have made that brilliant move with his “To be or not to be” speech. How better to convince those watching that you are mad if you speak of mad things even when you are alone (or are supposed to think you are alone)? Does Hamlet want to die? Not exactly. He says to Polonius (which should have been the first clue that his ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was a setup);
You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I
will more willingly part withal.– except my life,
except my life, except my life. (II ii 217-19)
He is duplicitous when he contemplates suicide, though is startlingly honest when he ponders the afterlife and the immortal soul. It is often difficult to know when Hamlet speaks the truth, or exactly whom he is manipulating at any given moment. It cannot simply be assumed that his moments ‘alone’ are the most honest, for Hamlet seeks to fool all audiences. His occasional falling out of character from time to time, in and out of his affected madness, can be attributed to his emotional stake in the games he plays. Even the most intelligent of people are often cracked by stress, and Hamlet is no exception, giving credibility to his sanity.
One of the most impressive features of Hamlet’s prolixity is his gift for paradox and ability to bait his fellows with a single statement. Often his counterpart is too blind to recognize that Hamlet is playing them (with the exceptional times that Claudius notices), exploiting them, or even accusing them of their own crimes. In a conversation with Polonius, he calls him a pimp, a “fishmonger” (II ii 174) asks “have you a daughter?” (II ii 182) when he well knows (and knows in the Biblical sense) that Polonius’ daughter is Ophelia. This confuses Polonius, who believes Hamlet to be out of his senses. What Hamlet has done is mix up a few words and accused Polonius of being Ophelia’s pimp. Hamlet says that Ophelia is not Polonius’ daughter, or at least one he should claim, because she is a whore. Since Hamlet has tainted her and now refuses her, she is worthless to any man, including her father who now cannot collect a dowry for her. Most notably, Hamlet plants the seeds of suspicion in his mother’s mind. When the seeds of her own involvement in the death of her husband, and involvement in corrupting Denmark are planted, Hamlet is then no longer personally responsible for her actions. Fortunately for Hamlet, Gertrude is quickly convinced of her own guilt. In a sense, Hamlet is responsible for Gertrude’s death, but not responsible. The ghost of his father advised to leave Gertrude to the justice of Heaven or Hell. Hamlet then, in good conscience, cannot kill his own mother. Yet, he cannot let her live knowing she has committed incest and was involved, however remotely, in regicide. Hamlet must know, as he is a cagey observer of human nature, that Gertrude will take her own life. Yet Gertrude is too like her son to be willing to take her own life. She must suspect then in her husband the poison in the wine. She seemed too eager to drink, and Hamlet too reluctant to drink from the cup. The murder/suicide of Queen Gertrude seems to be an understood act between mother and son during that fateful final scene. Hamlet killed her with words. Additionally, when Hamlet is convinced of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern’s betrayal, he turns the tables by having written orders for their deaths delivered to England. Again, Hamlet did not personally perform the murders, thus making him responsible, but not guilty. He killed his friends with written words. These are prime, though a bit complicated, examples of Hamlet’s manipulative skills and genius for human observation. A mind filled with such calculated plans cannot possibly be deranged, but coldly sound.
There is a single murder attributed to Hamlet’s personal hand. That is the death of Polonius in Gertrude’s chamber. Many critics (in fact, most) have argued that Polonius’ death was a case of mistaken identity, and Hamlet’s only slip up. Yet Hamlet is not an irrational, overly emotional character when it comes to such decisions. It would be definitely out of character for Hamlet to let his guard slip and emotionally and wildly draw his knife and stab blindly. Polonius was a planned death. Hamlet could not possibly have thought he was alone. He knows throughout the entire play that he is never alone, there is always someone watching him. Even in the assumed privacy of his mother’s chamber, Hamlet would not be so foolish to think he was alone. Polonius is Hamlet’s first physical action, for which he is both responsible and guilty. He says, ” I took thee for thy better” (III iv 31) of Polonius. Hamlet knew that killing Polonius would be a challenge, or rather, should have been a challenge. Polonius is of a stronger mental character than Claudius or Gertrude, whose guilt and sins can be used against their minds. Ophelia’s emotional state can be played against her, and Rozencrantz and Guildenstern’s underestimation of Hamlet used against them. Yet Polonius was a player in the game whom Hamlet knew had to be disposed, and likely posed the most difficulty for him since mind games only served to convince the old man that Hamlet was mad. Hamlet, then, likely had some form of twisted respect for him. When Polonius cried out, therefore revealing his hiding place and his guilt as a spy, the opportunity was there for Hamlet to act, an opportunity Polonius had not given him before. ” I took thee for they better” means that Hamlet thought Polonius was a smarter player in the game, thought he was better than a fool to cry out and reveal himself.
Ophelia’s madness is derived completely from Hamlet’s baiting. Not an unintelligent woman, Ophelia does discover the cause for Hamlet’s feigned insanity. However, this knowledge is apparently too much for her weak mind, and she is driven to madness and eventually suicide. If you’ll excuse the lack of formality, “Two down, the royal family and Laertes left to go.”
The final scene is where and when Hamlet’s schemes combine to fulfill his revenge. Claudius is wary of Hamlet, whose madness he is not entirely convinced. We begin to see cracks in Hamlet’s performance after Ophelia’s death. Hamlet grapples with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave, and speaks in verse. Throughout the entire play, there are limited occasions when Hamlet speaks in verse. His mad character has always spoken in prose, and this shift and emotional outburst definitely opens Claudius’ eyes to Hamlet’s ruse. Claudius already fears the revelation of his deed, which is why he sent Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to England with Hamlet: for his murder. That failed, and Ophelia’s realization of Claudius’ guilt, make the king a little uneasy. Hamlet has to be dispatched. Yet Hamlet is always a step or two ahead of the rest of the players. Anticipating a plot, Hamlet does not drink of the poisoned cup and allows his mother to drink. Gertrude, suspecting the wine is poisoned and drinking it against Claudius’ advisement, then has committed some sort of suicide. Hamlet allows her to drink, relieving her of her misery and guilt. With Gertrude’s death, Claudius realizes his own game is falling apart, yet he is not yet exposed. Hamlet must suspect the poisoned sword Laertes wields, or would not have struck Laertes with a mortal blow. Additionally, Hamlet allows himself to be wounded by the same poisoned sword. Struck with a pang of conscience, a dying Laertes confesses the treacherous plan concocted by Claudius (as Hamlet knew he would), thus exposing Claudius’ crimes (as the queen dies off to the side). Hamlet then is a free man to take his revenge on Claudius. Here’s the rationale: Hamlet is a murdered man (even though he knew the foil was poisoned– therefore planning his own murder). Yet while he still has breath in his lungs, he can kill the sinning king in clear conscience, knowing Claudius will go to Hell by the touch of his own poison and for the gravity of his past crimes. Hamlet will go to Heaven, having avenged his father by killing all those sorely affected by or involved in the murder, and not having laid a hand against all but one. Hamlet is also, technically, a murdered man, giving him another free pass into Heaven. It couldn’t have been executed more brilliantly unless it were planned by a sane man.
Why would Hamlet allow himself to die if he performs his father’s revenge? It all boils down to the responsible but not guilty attitude Hamlet toys with throughout the game he plays. Hamlet’s responsibility for the death of his family, the woman he loved and her family are things he cannot live with. Yet as discussed, Hamlet is unwilling to be responsible for his own death. This is why he had to plan his own murder, or rather, manipulate someone else into killing him. He could have allowed Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to have killed him earlier, as a maniacally depressed and insane man would have permitted, yet Hamlet was keen enough to know that it wasn’t yet time to die. Though an emotional character, Hamlet’s mind is almost continuously collected and exceptionally sane. As a character, he has fulfilled his raison d’etre and therefore cannot exist beyond the limitations he has created for himself. Hamlet lives and dies as a sane, brilliant, scheming character whose capacity for acting, manipulation, and character assessment are beyond compare.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford Edition.